The measure of Merkel
Her speeches are considered as uninspiring as her image but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is proving to be the right person to act as unofficial leader of a Europe in crisis – pragmatic, flexible, commanding. Derek Scally talks to friends and colleagues who have known her all her political life
The term of affection, though shot through with irony, betrays a lot about Germans’ complex relationship with their leader. The German language offers four terms for mother, in descending order of familiarity: mami, mama, mutti and mutter.
“Mutter is the most chilly,” says Dirk Kurbjuweit, a long-time Merkel watcher at Der Spiegel magazine, “but if my children said ‘mutti’ to my wife she would be insulted. Mutti is strict.”
The strict stateswoman rarely gives any insights into what she really thinks. But Kurbjuweit remembers an unguarded moment five years ago on a plane to St Petersburg when the financial crisis was building and Irish banks were in danger of collapse.
“She made it quite clear that Germany takes care of Germany and its interests first, then the rest,” he said. “Her argument was, ‘We take care of our money and the Irish can take care of theirs’.”
While Merkel has shifted significantly since then towards a European solution – all the while claiming she hasn’t moved an inch – Kurbjuweit says his blood “froze” at such a stridently nationalist tone from a German leader on a European matter.
Some fellow eastern politicians, who have known Merkel since the early days, see in her as a new breed of German politician in Europe.
She applies to EU policy a method of leadership she learned from Helmut Kohl: holding out on a decision, then leaping, at the last minute, onto whichever train is moving in the popular direction while claiming she was always aboard.
The approach is wholly unsuitable in European politics, argues Markus Meckel, an SPD politician, theologian and, like Rainer Eppelmann, member of East Germany’s first and last democratically-elected government in 1990.
“Europe is just one more thing to manage for Merkel,” he says. “She’s not stupid: she knows it’s important, just as long as it doesn’t cost Germany too much.”
While citizens elsewhere in Europe battle existential economic problems – no job, no money, no prospects – Merkel’s euro crisis narrative is tailored to German voters whose primary fear is not the present, but a Zukunftsangst, fear of a less-prosperous future.
Instead of a complex crisis of financial and political failure, Merkel’s domestic version is a parable of irresponsible and overindulgent countries who now need a radical fiscal diet.
The more popular corners of the German media have taken up and amplified the message, attacking lazy Greeks or feckless Italians and creating an atmosphere of prosperity chauvinism that Merkel doesn’t challenge. Instead she watches events, deconstructs opponents’ arguments and voter needs, then reconstructs and rebalances her politics to match.
In Germany, the jury is out over whether Merkel’s approach is refreshingly rational or cynically opportunistic. Her critics argue that her inherent caution and political wile leaves her incapable or unwilling to communicate what is required to keep the European project on the road. Like her outfits, her public speeches are sombre affairs, written in language more suited to scientific journals than the political fray.
“After three manuscripts you crave Japanese horseradish by the teaspoon just to fight the growing mental paralysis,” wrote journalist Carolin Emcke in Die Zeit after studying Merkel’s speeches. “Merkel doesn’t or can’t talk about dreams and visions. She wants to think in the feasible, not the possible.”
But Merkel’s admirers say her unflappability has been a boon in the crisis. Her confidantes in Berlin, none of whom dare go on the record, dispute the accusation that she has no clear vision of where Germany and Europe need to go. She knows what she wants – closer political ties with closer mutual oversight – but knows that communicating this would be the most effective way of ensuring it won’t happen.
Instead, Angela Merkel sticks to what she knows: an East German socialisation where it was wiser to keep your views to yourself and a scientific training where it is best to view big problems as a series of smaller problems to be solved sequentially.
This strategy has, to date, made her almost unassailable at home because it allows room for continual, minute course corrections based on changing circumstances. While her opponents look on helplessly, she steers unerringly past them to land precisely where, politically, she needs to land.
East German colleagues say the oft-heard description of Merkel – that she is interested in only achieving the achievable to stay in office – is a misunderstanding of her understanding of politics and power.
Paul Krüger equates Merkel’s political understanding with the prayer for serenity: to accept the things she cannot change, the courage to change the things she can and the wisdom to know the difference. Her much-maligned pragmatism, he suggests, is borne of a clear, cold eye for the limits of any political situation.
“She has an idea of where she wants to go, but you don’t have to reach all goals at once,” he says. “She sees power as the possibility to change things for the positive, not power for power’s sake.”